Rural self build in Hawick, Scottish borders

Inspired by his fine art degree, Brian Robertson referenced local artists when he and his wife Lesley built their Scottish Borders home.

By Caroline Ednie | 19 May 2017

Inspired by his fine art degree, Brian Robertson referenced local artists when he and his wife Lesley built their Scottish Borders home.

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Brian and Lesley Robertson cast their net far and wide when looking for artistic inspiration for their new self-build home on the outskirts of Hawick, in the Scottish Borders. A host of ideas emerged, from celebrated local architect Peter Womersley’s Modernist houses to Manet’s Impressionist paintings. Contemporary artist Toby Paterson was on hand for colour-palette advice, and the property’s name, Little Lindisfarne, tips a nod to Edinburgh artist Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta garden.

Yet, despite its creative beginnings, Little Lindisfarne is no capricious flight of fancy. This is a building of its setting and, thanks to its eco credentials, it’s a building of the future, too. ‘It’s a long, thin, sloping site, which is why we have a long, thin, sloping house,’ says Brian, a former neuroscientist who, after a long and successful career, gave up his professorship to study a degree in fine art at Edinburgh College of Art. After qualifying, it felt natural to stretch his new-found creativity by building a home, and the couple started to look for a plot in 2013, relocating from London to their holiday home in Hawick.

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They didn’t have to look very far – the site they chose happened to be adjacent to their own. ‘Coincidentally, when we moved to Scotland full-time and first thought about building something bespoke, we found that our next-door neighbour was planning to sell off a portion of his land,’ says Brian. ‘The plot already had permission for two bungalows to be built, so we bought it with the intention of putting in a new planning bid.’

Brian and Lesley already had a fairly clear overall design in mind, but they approached several architects to help hone their ideas. ‘From the outset, we had three key aims: open-plan spaces, a larch-clad exterior and a shape that followed the slope of the site,’ says Brian. It was this simple design idea that was presented to planners, who were less than enthusiastic at first. ‘The planning office described it as “brutal and box-like”,’ Brian explains, ‘but we had done our research and we knew there was precedent to give us permission. And it was given, through gritted teeth. We later got a Commendation at the Borders Council’s Design Awards 2016.’

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The post-planning stages weren’t without challenges, either. ‘We didn’t realise how much structural steel would be involved,’ explains Brian. ‘I had designed the structure to be exclusively timber framed, but I took the plans to a local engineer who told me that it wouldn’t work. Its shape and width meant it was like a gigantic sail that would catch the prevailing west wind. So we had to spend around £25,000 to get structural steel put in.’ Once on site, another snag emerged. ‘The foundations were well prepared but we found that the original drawings had ignored the topographic survey and the datum point was in the wrong place, so we had to dig down further. It ended up needing a lot more excavation than anticipated.’

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Thankfully, the build team then hit the ground running with construction of Little Lindisfarne. ‘You read about or see so many self-builds where the wheels start to come off and it all spirals out of control. Our project was the complete opposite, and after a few initial hurdles, everything fell into place. For the majority of the build, the biggest concern was deciding what kind of cake the team wanted on tea breaks,’ says Brian. As they were living in the house next door, and keen to get involved with every aspect of their project, Brian and Lesley were very hands-on during the build, directed by main contractor Joe Fraser. ‘Joe was invaluable,’ says Brian. ‘He organised supplies of the basic building materials and helped us choose blacksmiths, engineers, plasterers, a plumber and an electrician, who were all local to Hawick. Lesley and I sourced a lot of the materials, including the windows, roof light, renewables and flooring. Lesley managed the finances and I was a builder’s labourer and joiner’s mate for the duration of the project. I helped fell and chop up trees to clear the site; the wood was recycled into furniture or firewood. Everyone was a delight to work with – we had a ball.’